“If you take little account of yourself, you will have peace wherever you live.” - Abba Poemen
“Abba Joseph said to Abba Nisterus, ‘What should I do about my tongue, for I cannot control it?’ The old man said to him, ‘When you speak, do you find peace?’ He replied ‘No.’ The old man said, ‘If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent and when a conversation takes place, it is better to listen than to speak.’”
- Sayings of the Desert Fathers & Mothers, (early 4th century)
You might have opened this newsletter nervous that I’m writing this about you. And I am. I’m writing about all of us. We all just need to SHUT the @#* UP. We talk too much. We listen too little. We need to get over ourselves.
Br. Levon Harton, OSB at Benedictine Abbey gave a sermon at a conference titled, “Entering the Silence that Changes Me.” In it he says, “We tend to think of silence as an external dynamic—that if we just get out of the city, turn off the streaming services that we are using, and quiet down our companions—then we have silence!” In Tish Harrison Warren’s essay in the NYT (I highly recommend you subscribe) last week she writes about this kind of silence as a luxury commodity.
But, Harton goes on to say that St. Benedict actually didn’t use the latin term for silence the way it is translated, instead he used De Taciturnitate, which actually translates as “restraint.” According to Benedict, silence is not equivalent to quiet, it is more akin to “restraint of speech.” Something we don’t practice very often in our talk radio, social media, blogosphere (#guilty) or even in our human interactions.
What can we learn about the impulse to always talk and rarely listen? What is the act of engaging someone in conversation that is about (shocking) the conversation and not just speaking into our self-created vacuum? And what can we learn by restraining our speech and not saying everything that comes into our blasted brains all the time?
But before I get into that…
Last time I wrote about the power of detachment and how the need to detach from the swirling stories that we tell ourselves in order to examine them with curiosity is the first step towards change, towards non-judgement and towards compassion. A friend, however, engaged me in a great conversation after she read the post, that pushed my thinking and I’d like to share with you.
She posited that while this kind of detachment is a first step, it goes nowhere towards creating lasting change. She wrote to me, "I don’t believe we have the power to narrate ourselves to where we need to go in any profound, sustained way." And I agree, no matter what the psychologists tell us, we can’t change our circumstances simply by being aware of and even changing our thinking. (my friend is a psychologist btw)
“You don’t think your way into a new way of living. You live your way into a new way of thinking.”
(attributed to Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, and variation of this to Bill Wilson)
And while I wholeheartedly believe this, I know that is not how I predominantly live my life. I live my life thinking, most of the time, I have control. That I can set goals, make plans and when I do, things happen. Life changes. And maybe that’s true for the exterior, superficial things, but my interior struggles and longings remain the same.
Maybe that’s why Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Not because wealth is inherently wrong, but because if we’re just focusing on growing on the outside and not on the inside we’ll never find true communion, awakening, heaven, nirvana. Whatever you want to call it.
So how do we work towards lasting interior change?
Here is what my generous spiritual pen pal describes:
“I think we need to go back to the story of the Fall. For me, this is not a moral story. It is a descriptive story of the holocaust of our spiritually interconnected consciousness with the transcendent Other. Put another way, it describes how we stopped being narrated into being and began narrating ourselves into being, with disastrous, self-deluding results.”
I mean, right?! #mindblown She goes on,
“The transcendent Other has a “placeness” to its nature - it is somewhere you go in yourself where you learn to let yourself be taught - “in” “tuition.” In that still, present place, you hear (along with your own internal chatter) your song being sung to you, largely in the unconscious so you don’t necessarily hear or feel anything specific. But if you wait, attend (which has something to do with a place beyond listening, a place of unknowing) something in your consciousness starts to separate from your internal chatter and you are moved - even a little - in emotion or in thought or sometimes in body. I have heard Grace defined as, “The touch of truth.” It is that kind of “touch”, when you wait in that place. In that realm, I believe your story is actually being told to you, your song is being sung and it is hitting you with waves of spiritual sound. These are what I believe will change you and transform your consciousness.
Why don’t we all run to this place, all the time, for the ecstasy of it? Because for much of the time, the touch is happening in the place of the unconscious, where you can’t be certain. And equally important, you don’t get to decide what you hear. The story is, at first listen, not what you would have contrived as your life, not what you want to hear. And this place also holds every thread of your song, your story, so it is a place of trauma and emptiness as well as tenderness and laughter. I have come to actually define love as, hearing your story told to you, which is not always an easy thing to tolerate and something we need to be retaught.”
I am so grateful for her words and the reminder that it is in letting go, not into the void, but into the sacred that we change. We do not change by trying or working harder. Spiritual work is never “self-help.” It is much more what is contained in the first two of the 12 steps. “We admitted we were powerless over [fill in the blank] and that our lives had become unmanageable.” Letting go of control. And then “We came to be aware that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” God restores us - by revealing what is. Whatever is. Sometimes just to our unconscious selves. God’s greatest ally is Reality, but until we slow down, be still, get quiet and go within - we’re just spinning into distraction, deflection and avoidance.
Back to Br. Harton’s sermon on “Silence that Changes Us” he says, “So, I want to say that silence in the spiritual life should be viewed as a cultivation of receptivity to reality, to our life circumstances, to the emotions that we have, to our fears and anxieties and struggles. Being silent is being ready to let these agitations rise up and break against us and reveal something to us—receiving them.”
What my friend and Br. Harton are describing is a deeply contemplative space of prayer and meditation where, what Father Thomas Keating calls, “divine therapy” happens to us. It is in that “inner room” that Jesus invites us to shut the door and be still. We are invited not to “babble like pagans who think they are heard because of their many words” but to be quiet and trust that God knows what we need before we ask. (Matt 6: 6-8) Even if what we need is to be agitated.
Which brings me back to shutting up.
I’ve said before I’ve had a love/hate relationship with silence. Like an active ongoing relationship. I wrote this poem when I was in my early 20’s. 😬 (it’s very Shel Silverstein)
The Silence Filler
I am the silence filler.
Give me an hour
And I'll chew off your ear.
Give me a minute
And I'll tell you a tale.
Give me a second
And I'll sneeze or I'll snort.
Just give me a silence
And I'll wipe it up quick.
I'll eat it for lunch.
I'll dance it to death.
I'll joke it
And poke it
And coax it
And roast it
Tease it and please it
Just give me a hushed calm.
Those ones that you fear?
The ones that someday
You'll have to fill
With your little voice
In your little way.
But fear not today, my friend,
For the silence filler is here.
And I'm here to stay.
I honestly don’t know why I wrote it. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that I was terrified of silence, of what it could reveal about my brokenness. So I avoided it by filling it. I talked. A lot. There were always those rare instances when I’d have someone with whom I could have incredible conversations. I could even be silent with them. Those people were and are magic in my life.
You see when one enters a conversation, similarly to when one enters meditation, one consents to be in the full presence of the other and one consents to the possibility of being changed by the other. This requires a kind of “making space,” a generous vulnerability. It requires, above all, listening.
Too often rather than being in someone’s presence, we are merely in proximity. And too often rather than being open to the possibility of being changed by a conversation, we are hermetically sealed leaving no air for another voice. These days we don’t talk to people, we talk at people. We objectify the other as an extension of our own egos, looking for a mirror instead of a human soul.
But at its best, also like in prayer, when we are in that space of presence and openness; and when we are listening deeply to the each other, we are in a space that dances. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about something we agree on or not, if we are both open to the possibility of change, letting go of our egos, forgetting ourselves - it is electric. There is an erotic charge, a synchronistic energy. There’s emotional spontaneity and epiphanies big and small. There is joy between us … if we can just get over ourselves.
But when we restrain our speech for the good of the conversation we can’t always be guaranteed our talking partner will do the same. It’s painful to be talked at. In this position we have a choice to either practice patience and listen as an act of generosity or to practice setting boundaries and excuse ourself from the situation with a smile. Both are valid choices as long as we don’t fall into resentment.
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes about how us humans never quite get it right. We emphasize the wrong things. As Jim Finely puts it on his podcast Turning to the Mystics, “we live in perpetual distortions.” Merton says, “Yet the fact remains that we are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”
Finely explains on the podcast, “And how do I do that? Our meditation practice is where we do that. We come out from behind the curtain, and we risk getting vulnerable. We risk being empty handed. We risk living without answers. We risk learning to lean into the love that loves us so in our confusion. And we learn to sit there like an unlearned child.. That in our practice we forget ourselves on purpose, all our obsessions, our compulsions, they’re still there, like the buzz that circles around waiting to have their way with us. But in our intention, we can keep the intentionality of our heart focused on what our heart knows is true.”
What we know is true and real. This is what is revealed in the silence of prayer and what is revealed in the listening space of deep conversations. The True and the Real are the very components of Love as it whispers our stories back to us and invites us, like shy teenagers, to forget ourselves and join in the general dance.
Spend some time today not just in quiet but in the silence of restrained speech. Listen to your friend at work with an open, patient heart. Talk with your Uncle that drives you crazy. Put your phone down, look at your child and be in their full presence as they tell you about their day.
If you’d like to share your thoughts about this post and have a conversation, you can just hit reply and it will come right to me. I hope you do. Interacting with people is the best thing about writing this newsletter. ;)